Compared with other species, humans can be very tractable and thus an ideal "model system" for investigating the metabolic cost of locomotion. Here, we review the biomechanical basis for the metabolic cost of running. Running has been historically modeled as a simple spring-mass system whereby the leg acts as a linear spring, storing, and returning elastic potential energy during stance. However, if running can be modeled as a simple spring-mass system with the underlying assumption of perfect elastic energy storage and return, why does running incur a metabolic cost at all? In 1980, Taylor et al. proposed the "cost of generating force" hypothesis, which was based on the idea that elastic structures allow the muscles to transform metabolic energy into force, and not necessarily mechanical work. In 1990, Kram and Taylor then provided a more explicit and quantitative explanation by demonstrating that the rate of metabolic energy consumption is proportional to body weight and inversely proportional to the time of foot-ground contact for a variety of animals ranging in size and running speed. With a focus on humans, Kram and his colleagues then adopted a task-by-task approach and initially found that the metabolic cost of running could be "individually" partitioned into body weight support (74%), propulsion (37%), and leg-swing (20%). Summing all these biomechanical tasks leads to a paradoxical overestimation of 131%. To further elucidate the possible interactions between these tasks, later studies quantified the reductions in metabolic cost in response to synergistic combinations of body weight support, aiding horizontal forces, and leg-swing-assist forces. This synergistic approach revealed that the interactive nature of body weight support and forward propulsion comprises ∼80% of the net metabolic cost of running. The task of leg-swing at most comprises ∼7% of the net metabolic cost of running and is independent of body weight support and forward propulsion. In our recent experiments, we have continued to refine this task-by-task approach, demonstrating that maintaining lateral balance comprises only 2% of the net metabolic cost of running. In contrast, arm-swing reduces the cost by ∼3%, indicating a net metabolic benefit. Thus, by considering the synergistic nature of body weight support and forward propulsion, as well as the tasks of leg-swing and lateral balance, we can account for 89% of the net metabolic cost of human running.
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